Friday, January 28, 2011

Vive the Independent Bookseller!

Powells Book Blog
Posted by David Vann, January 26, 2011

When my first work of fiction, Legend of a Suicide, was published in France, I learned some surprising lessons about the astounding power of the independent bookseller. Things are done a bit differently there in a way that especially highlights the role of a store like Powell's and sheds light on how difficult and precious is the work it does.

In so many ways, France is a wonderful home for a book. There's a tax break for opening a bookstore. And since by law no book can be discounted more than 5%, these independent booksellers are protected from massive online discounts. As a result, there are 600 independent booksellers that sell literary fiction. This landscape would be a dream come true for American independent booksellers.

And then there's the bookseller himself or herself, who undertakes a course of study similar to that of a librarian in this country, suggesting the premium the culture places on literature. These booksellers display "coup de coeur" (heartfelt) selections, attaching heart-bands on their favorite books along with review clips on the shelves much as we do with our bookstore picks. One bookseller in Paris has sold more than 1,300 copies of my book herself.

Aside from these practices, I sensed a literary conversation and debate in Paris and also nationally that is not quite as easy to come by in America. This can be seen most clearly each fall, when the new literary novels come out, the literary prizes are awarded, and amazingly enough, any book that wins a prize immediately hits the bestseller list. It could be an experimental novel about a bridge, and have a plain cover with only the author's name and the book's title, but if it wins a prize, tens of thousands of people will buy it.

In the United States, the likes of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award sell some books but most prizes seem largely ignored. In America, fewer titles cut through the noise and all books seem to have a shorter shelf-life, more driven by short-term publicity than by critical acclaim.

I wondered after my very positive French experience if perhaps there was a different reading public in France than in the U.S., a more reliable audience willing to read a greater range of works — a more receptive literary reader. And then I realized that American readers of exactly this bent do exist, but they are somehow harder to find. And this is where our independent booksellers step in.

Though not bolstered by the protections of their government (or the implicit insurance of a devoted public), our indie booksellers bring everything that is great in French publishing to readers who chose them as their gatekeepers. And that's why I was thrilled to read my new novel, Caribou Island, at a bookstore such as Powell's.

The author does live part of each year in New Zealand.

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